Queering the Novel: Spatiality and Temporality in E. M. Forster
Born on January first, 1879, Edward Morgan Forster began his long life at the close of one year and the beginning of the next: a moment of transition and tension that would mark his life and career for the next 91 years. A homosexual man living in a country where homosexuality was a crime and an early twentieth century novelist born at the height of the Victorian period, Forster lived his life in a constant state of tension, forced to navigate between and through competing social discourses, pressures and conventions that were themselves in violent flux. To borrow literary critic James Miracky’s words: “As a young Englishman coming to terms with homosexual attractions while forging a career in the heterosexually coded world of early twentieth-century fiction, Forster found that his life and work were constantly marked by tensions between this (then) illicit desires and social and literary conventions” (Miracky, 26).
This tension is most explicit in Forster’s work both as an author and a critic of the novel. Indeed, even critics of Forster argue over whether or not the term “Modernist” can be justifiably attached to him, often citing the strength of his omniscient narrative voice and the consistent application of moral values through that voice as literary markers of Forster’s correct, albeit anachronistic, placement in the Victorian period. However, as a number of recent critics have noted, Forster made significant contributions to the modern novel through both his own novels and his criticism. Miracky locates Forster’s Modernist innovation in what he calls “‘alternations in the narrative contract’ through the insertion of [a] homosexual subtext” (Miracky, 27). In other words, Miracky contends that all of Forster’s novels contain a homosexual counter-narrative that actively undermines the overt heterosexual narrative that dominates the novel. Whereas Miracky focuses on what he terms Forster’s “structural innovation as opposed to the ‘stylistic innovation’ of people like Woolf, Joyce, and Proust” (Miracky, 27), other critics like Elizabeth Langland argue for Modernist stylistic contributions from Forster’s work, ones that specifically unsettle his position in any Victorian context.
The many scholarly disputes surrounding Forster’s position within the literary canon notwithstanding, Forster’s novels themselves manifest the tensions with which Forster wrestled for most of his life. The famous phrase “only connect” from one of Forster’s most famous novels, Howards End, highlights Forster’s attempt to reconcile the competing fragments of human love that he saw scattered about his own life and country, as well as the world in which he lived. “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height” (Howards End 195). The beauty of this sentiment readily captures what Forster attempted to achieve in and through his novels—the unity of passion and reason, sex and love, desire and fulfillment. However, just as Margaret fails to help Henry Wilcox connect the two parts of his life, so does Forster fail to achieve the meaningful, transcendent connection between two people within the framework that the novel provided. Even the connection evidenced in Maurice between Maurice and Alec must be displaced and removed to the fantasy realm of the Greenwood in order to survive. I would argue that the impact of this failure weighed so heavily on Forster that he could no longer use the novel as a written form because it precluded the possibility of connection.
According to Forster, any human failure claims importance in the novel, because “the intensely, stiflingly human quality of the novel is not to be avoided; the novel is sogged with humanity” (Aspects of the Novel 15). What makes the novel unique as a form is its concern with the human, and “the main facts in human life are five: birth, food, sleep, love and death” (Aspects 33). While Forster’s writing contains all of these aspects, his primary concern falls overwhelmingly on love. Hence, the failure of love to create connection between people poses a serious threat to Forster’s design. I hold that the failure of this connection presents a site for productive and engaging critical analysis that centers around what I seek to label “queer” characters in Forster’s work—specifically his last three novels, Howards End, Maurice and A Passage to India—and their influence on narrative within the form of the novel.
What I term a “queer” character is one whose nature, desires, and actions do not conform to the environment in which they are placed, either consciously by the author or by the reader when considering the novel’s cultural and societal context. With the obvious inclusion of the homosexuality in Maurice, I also consider Maragret Wilcox a queer character because of her curious detachment from any prescribed gender role. In A Passage to India, a number of characters can be read as queer: Miss Quested “queers” the entrenched norms of relationship between Englishwomen and Indian men; both Aziz and Fielding “queer” their placement in societies that simultaneously accept and reject them. In my thesis, I plan to argue that the queerness of these characters pushes against the traditional bonds of spatiality and temporality in the novel, frustrating its teleology and thus problematizing the ability for resolution and conclusion. Furthermore, these queer characters dismantle the novel’s teleology from within the novel itself by defying confinement within normalized, heterosexual projections of time and space. The form of the novel that was available to Forster afforded no possibility for queer spaces—discursive or geographic—or queer time, and therefore could not adequately contain these characters.
While I anticipate drawing from a number of different theoretical approaches to narrative and/in the novel, I plan on employing the tools of more recent queer scholarship to conceptualize the creation of “queer” spaces and the progression of “queer” time. I wish to measure queer theories of spatiality against Forster’s own theory of the novel to see where the teleology of Forster’s own work can be understood as “queer,” but also to see where the failure of connection within that teleology can be reconceptualized by a queer reading of his last three novels. Furthermore, by tracking a progression of the theory of the novel from the Victorian into the Modern period, I wish to show that Forster’s contributions to the form were significant, in that he was one of the first authors to “queer” the novel. Below is a list of questions I wish to address that I hope will guide me in this line of analysis.
- How does queerness influence narrative progression in Howards End, Maurice, and A Passage to India?
- What does it mean to be “queer” in a novel written by a homosexual man? Furthermore, what does “queerness” mean beyond minority sexual expressions/orientations in novels that themselves employ the term?
- What is the difference between physical sex and emotional love in these novels, and how does that tension manifest itself in queer ways?
- Does Forster foresee an alternative resolution to the tensions created in a novel between plot and character beyond simply death or marriage? If so, like in the case of Maurice, what kinds of literary devices does he have to use to construct this stable, queer space?
- How does the queerness of Forster’s novels situate him in the Modernist canon? Does he rightfully merit the label “modernist”? If he does, how can we make sense of the Victorian influences on his work?
- What is the influence of geographic space and physical placement on the development of character in these novels? How does Forster employ fantasy as a literary technique to address queer issues and concerns in order to resolve the conflicts posed by the novel’s thematic structure, as well as its conventional form?
- Why did Forster stop writing novels fifty years before he died?
Forster, E. M. A Passage to India. London: Harvest/HBJ, 1924.
---. Howards End. New York: Vintage International, 1989.
---. Maurice. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1971.
Bailey, Quentin. “Heroes and Homosexuals: Education and Empire in E. M. Forster.” Twentieth Century Literature 48.3 (2002): 324-347.
Halberstam, Judith. “Queer Temporality and Postmodern Geographies.” In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: NYU Press, 2005. 1-21.
Jago, David. “School and Theater: Polarities of Homosexual Writing in England” College English 36.3 (1974): 360-368.
Liberetti, Tim. “Sexual Outlaws and Class Struggle: Rethinking History and Class Consciousness from a Queer Perspective.” College English 67.2 (2004): 154-171.
Markley, A. A. “E. M. Forster’s Reconfigured Gaze and the Creation of a Homoerotic Subjectivity.” Twentieth Century Literature 47.2 (2001): 268-292.
Martin, Robert K.; Piggford, George, eds. Queer Forster. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.
Rodriguez, Juana Maria. Queer Latinidad: Identity Practices, Discursive Spaces. New York: New York University Press, 2003.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.
Warner, Michael. The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Critical Theory and Literary Criticism
Bergonzi, Bernard; Bradbury, Malcolm; Kermode, Frank, et al. “Realism, Reality, and the Novel: A Symposium on the Novel.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 2.3 (1969): 197-211.
Bradshaw, David, ed. The Cambridge Companion to E. M. Forster. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Clayton, Jay. “Narrative and Theories of Desire.” Critical Inquiry 16.1 (1989): 33-53.
Crews, Frederick C. “E. M. Forster: The Limitations of Mythology.” Comparative Literature 12.2 (1960): 97-112.
Forster, E. M. Aspects of the Novel. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1954.
Graham, Kenneth. Indirections of the Novel: James, Conrad, and Forster. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Hunt, John Dixon. “Muddle and Mystery in A Passage to India” ELH 33.4 (1966): 497-517.
Kort, Wesley A. Place and Space in Modern Fiction. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004.
Miller, D. A. The Novel and the Police. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
Miracky, James J. Regenerating the Novel: Gender and Genre in Woolf, Forster, Sinclair, and Lawrence. New York: Routledge, 2003.
Sanders, Scott. “The Left-Handedness of Modern Literature.” Twentieth Century Literature 23:4 (1977): 417-436.
Sharma, K. K. Tradition in Modern Novel-Theory. Atlantic Heights: Humanities Press, 1981.
Wilde, Alan. “Desire and Consciousness: The ‘Anironic’ Forster.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 9.2 (1976): 114-129.
Zwerdling, Alex. “The Novels of E. M. Forster.” Twentieth Century Literature 2.4 (1957): 171-181.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18.
Stone, Wilfred; Forster, E. M. “Some Interviews with E. M. Forster, 1957-58, 1965” Twentieth Century Literature 43.1 (1997): 57-74.
Forster (1954): Delivered originally as a series of lectures (the Clark lectures) in 1927 at Cambridge and later transcribed by Forster into book form, Aspects of the Novel contains Forster’s most concentrated thoughts on the form and function of the novel. By dividing each of the chapters into what he considers an essential element of the novel, Forster is able to highlight the way that various aspects of the novel that intersect to create a literary form that is unique in both its “sensitiveness” to human nature and its value as a form of art (13). In Forster’s vision, the novel lends itself especially well to a sensitive portrayal of human life because as the novelist is himself a human being, “there is an affinity between him and his subject-matter which is absent in many other forms of art” (30). Because the novelist is an artist who must be sensitive to the nature of human beings, his literary greatness is directly proportional to how “complete a picture of a man’s life, both on its domestic and heroic side” he can create (4). The completeness of this picture depends on the novelist’s ability to construct a mysterious, engaging and sensitive plot that incorporates believable characters.
However, just as the word “completeness” implies, the form of the novel presents a great difficulty to the novelist: he has to “wind up” his plot. Forster asserts that “nearly all novels are feeble at the end” because of the difficulty in effectively (and convincingly) connecting the characters and the plot. The two most viable (and culturally acceptable) options for this reconciliation are death and marriage (66). In my thesis I plan on exploring how queer characters in Forster’s novels further complicate his job as a novelist in two ways. First, their queerness actively resists containment within the heteronormative temporal framework that places reproduction (marriage) as its highest goal. This resistance denies Forster the ability to use to marriage as a means to resolve the conflict between character and plot. Second, queer characters defy containment within Forster’s plots by resisting the spaces in which he attempts to locate them so that his narrative can progress logically.
Halberstam (2005): While Halberstam’s analysis of queer time and space does not directly deal with the novel—or literature at all—it provides a useful conceptual framework to understand queer renderings of temporality and spatiality. She argues that queer time actively resists the heteronormative “temporal frames of bourgeois reproduction and family, longevity, risk/safety, and inheritance” by compressing time to a single moment, thus giving credence and authority to the present (6). Queer spaces are those created by what she terms “queer counter-republics”: communities that undermine the authority of heteronormative structures. I aim to apply Halberstam’s renderings of queer temporality and spatiality to Forster’s last three novels to show that his queer characters construct time and space that actively resist the heterosexual framework imposed on them by the form of the novel.
Kort (2004): I rely heavily on Kort’s theories of spatiality to conceptualize the roles of discursive and geographic space in Howards End, Maurice and A Passage to India. Kort argues, and I think persuasively, that narrative theory and literary criticism have traditionally privileged the language of temporality—that of action and events—over the language of space and place when theorizing about narrative (10). Consequently, the language of spatiality within a narrative is often reduced to observations about “setting” (15). Kort observes that “‘setting’ is an inadequate term for covering the possibilities of the language of space in narrative discourse because place and space need not stand only as background and need not lack force and significance” (15). According to Kort, the modernists conceptualize space and place in three different ways: cosmic or comprehensive space, social or political space, and personal or intimate space (19-20). He argues that Forster concerns himself primarily with personal space and the threat that “urbanization, mobility, and a money economy” pose to the integrity of that space (67). While I think that Kort’s arguments are compelling, I will consider Forster’s concern with interpersonal spatiality from a different angle, namely, one that considers the effects of queerness on the safety of interpersonal (private) spaces.
Markley (2001): Markley’s piece usefully synthesizes film and narrative theory to argue for a “reconfigured gaze” in Forster’s novels that focuses on a homosexual rather than female subject. He departs from Mulvey, however, in arguing that Forster’s homosexual gaze is “dynamic rather than static in terms of [its] effect on the narrative” (269). In other words, instead of impeding narrative progression like the female subject in heteronormative narratives, the homosexual subject “alter[s] and drive[s] forth the course of the plot dramatically” (269). While I find Markley’s argument useful for synthesizing film and narrative theory, I believe his focus on Forster’s first three novels leads him to his conclusion (namely, that the reconfigured gaze on the homosexual subject alters the course of the plot), whereas my focus on Forster’s last three novels yields an opposing interpretation: the “queer” subject captures the reader’s (and narrative) gaze to halt the progression of narrative, thus constructing a queer moment. I will then analyze this moment in terms of Halberstam’s theory of queer temporality to assess how queer time resists the temporal teleology of the novel.
Miracky (2003): Miracky argues that the novel has been historically tied to gender since its rise in the eighteenth century, and that this link appears in modern novels as an attempt to wrestle with the “gender crisis” and societal instability of the early twentieth century by manipulating the form of the novel to “reformulate attitudes about sex and gender in the modern era” (xii). In his chapter on Forster, Miracky argues that Forster’s main contribution the form of the modern novel is his use of fantasy to construct “a realm in which same-sex desire can be covertly acknowledged and expressed” (27). This realm exists in Forster’s texts as a queer counter-narrative that subtly undermines the overtly heterosexual progression of the novel. I plan to use Miracky’s argument as a springboard for my own analysis of the influence queer spaces and the tensions of gender have on the teleology of Forster’s novels, as witnessed by their effects on characters in Howards End, Maurice, and A Passage to India.
Mulvey (1975): In her canonical essay on film theory, Mulvey employs feminist psychoanalysis as a critical tool to evaluate the power of film in capturing the male “gaze” of a heterosexual audience. She argues that presenting this heterosexual male gaze with a female subject freezes the progression of narrative by seizing both the audience and the male protagonist in a moment of erotic longing and self-identification (through the fear of male castration that the woman represents). I plan to take Mulvey’s observations and apply them to Forster’s novels to uncover a “queer” gaze that inhibits the progression of narrative.
Rodriguez (2003): Similar to my rationale for using Halberstam’s book on queer temporality and spatiality, Rodriguez’s analysis of queer identity practices and discursive spaces in Latino/a culture provides a valuable example of queer critical inquiry into the nature of discursive space. What I find significant in Rodriguez’s book is her account of how language can be used to simultaneously construct and unsettle gender binaries and sexual identities by establishing discursive spaces in which certain identities are excluded while others are privileged. Rodriguez’s theory of discursive space can be applied to Forster’s last three novels in order to see the way that queer characters struggle against and fall prey to the discursive spaces that limit and exclude them.
Sharma (1981): In this book Sharma examines two competing theories of the modern novel that developed alongside each other between 1914 and the 1930s: the “unconventional concept of the novel, discarding most of the well-established traditions” promoted by novelists like Henry James, Virigina Woolf and D.H. Lawrence, and the “undercurrent of some sort of reaction against them…upholding some of the basic traditions of the English novel” (like a concern for the moral function of art) by Forster, Somerset Maugham and Joyce Cary (vii). Sharma argues that Forster’s “traditionalist” focus on the humanity of the novel, combined with a firm belief that the novel should be “centered upon a story, a plot, living character, [and a] vivid portrayal of life,” balances his novels in a way that Woolf and Lawrence fail to achieve (76). While I think that Sharma offers valuable observations about competing theories of the modern novel, I part from his conclusion that Forster’s more traditional leanings aide him in creating a more “balanced poetics of the novel” (viii). Rather, I argue that these leanings complicate Forster’s ability to write a balanced novel, precisely because his queer characters defy the type of balance they provide.